The best way to understand Ball State senior linebacker Travis Freeman's football journey -- and his mission -- is to let Freeman's own words tell the story.
Talking and tackling are his specialties.
Tackles are an unofficial stat, but Freeman is unofficially the NCAA's active leader in career tackles with 432, 28 more than Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy candidate Manti Te'o. Also unofficial but important to Freeman is his role as an ambassador, a proud member of the fraternity of Cleveland Glenville High School graduates playing football at a higher level and paving the way for the next group, as well.
Freeman isn't going to be Glenville's next first-round NFL draft pick next spring. He probably won't be drafted at all, and he's fine with that. Besides helping Ball State finish what's been a successful season thus far on a high note, Freeman sees one of his top priorities as furthering what Glenville coach Ted Ginn Sr. has been doing for more than a decade, taking kids who too often grow up in broken families and giving them a chance to use football to find a different, better path.
"The responsibility that we as athletes have is to show that you can be better," Freeman said. "You can have better. Regardless of where you come from, you can go to college. If people know you because you're a great football player, you can use that to be a role model in other ways.
"There are a lot of people who have the perception that success is only defined by driving a nice car and being able to tell people you play in the NFL. The reality is success in doing the right things to get that scholarship offer, then when high school is over you're not hanging around the neighborhood getting in trouble. You're going to college for free. That's big enough in itself.
"Crazy as it sounds, there are kids growing up in Cleveland who have no idea about that. They think you either make the NFL or you just stay on the streets. Getting an education, going to practice every day, that's the hard route in my neighborhood. Too many guys take the shortcut, the easy money doing the wrong thing."
Tonight, Ball State gets a rare national TV game against No. 25 Toledo, which is playing to maintain and improve its first national ranking in 11 years and sustain an eight-game win streak. Ball State (6-3) would need help to stay alive in the MAC West race even with a win tonight, but can get a bowl bid with a strong finish and a little luck.
The Toledo game has extra personal meaning for Freeman. Toledo is quarterbacked by his former Glenville teammate and close friend Terrance Owens. The two talk often about lots of things, especially their chance to play as rivals.
"He tells me all year he's coming to get me," Owens said. "And I tell him all year that it's not going to happen."
Ginn Sr. and his Glenville pipeline have been making a sizeable impact on the college football landscape for more than a decade, most notably at Ohio State but also throughout the Midwest and, on occasion, the entire country. There are also Glenville alums on the roster at Kent State and Akron. Michael Edwards is at Hawaii. Shane Wynn is Indiana's leadng receiver. Five Big Ten teams have Glenville alums on their 2012 rosters, and that number is down from recent years. Four former Tarblooders are currently at Ohio State, including starting offensive lineman Marcus Hall and starting safety Christian Bryant.
"You turn on the TV on a Saturday and you see we have guys pretty much everywhere," Freeman said. "It's a blessing."
Glenville alums Donte Whitner and Ted Ginn Jr. are former top-10 NFL draft picks now playing for the San Francisco 49ers. 2006 Heisman winner Troy Smith played in the NFL and is now working at Ohio State. In the spirit of Freeman's mission, it's also important to note that Glenville graduate Ricky Palmer played football at Div. III Wilmington College in Southwest Ohio but has worked for the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals and now runs the football video operation at Rutgers.
"Every kid wants to play in the NFL," Freeman said. "Every kid who plays high school football wants to be a big deal on the next level, and the same in college. I think more guys are starting to understand that if football can push you to a college degree, to a job opportunity, to see the world a little differently, then that's success, too."
Freeman said he sees Ginn's "unselfishness (as) a gift and a necessity" to kids in Cleveland who don't have much at home and often don't have anywhere to turn, and Freeman's own story is all too typical.
Freeman said his father has "several children" and "was in and out of my life." Freeman said he has two "immediate siblings," his older, full brothers who played football at Cleveland's East High School. The three boys were raised by Gwendolyn Freeman in Cleveland's Hough Neighborhood.
"My mother was a single parent who worked as a housekeeper," Freeman said. "We struggled, but we always had each other. She was always supportive of me being a football player.
"Every time she comes to a game, she ends up crying. She sees it as a blessing. My brothers come to games, too. They love just being a part of it. My oldest brother George pushed me into football. He was probably the influence that pushed me into it and never let me quit when I was young and maybe my friends wanted to do something else."
In college recruiting terms, Freeman said he was a "'tweener. Too small to play linebacker at some places, maybe not fast enough to play safety. Coach Ginn sat me down after my junior year and told me straight up it wasn't going to be easy to get me a Div. I scholarship.
"I took that personal and started buying into everything. I probably became the ultimate Glenville Tarblooder after I was told that. I started working a little harder, making sure my grades were good, making sure I was leading and being an example for other guys. And I just played harder and faster than I ever did before."
Matt Campbell, now Toledo's head coach, was the first coach to call Freeman with an actual scholarship offer. He eventually committed to then-Ball State coach Stan Parrish, who he'd "seen at Glenville a thousand times, starting way before I was old enough to get recruited."
Freeman had visited Ball State on one Ginn's summer bus tours, which took prospective college players from all over Northeast Ohio -- not just Glenville -- around the college football camp circuit. Freeman now looks at things like the bus tour, mandatory study tables and having to dress in suit and tie on game days as important steps in Ginn's plans to prepare his players for college.
"That's what makes him who he is," Freeman said. "I've heard a lot about, 'Well, Glenville hasn't won a state championship' or, 'It's been a while since a Glenville guy got picked in the first round.' It's not even about that. At the end of the day, Ginn is trying to turn boys into men.
"I definitely have a responsibility to the next group of Glenville guys. Every time I get home I go to Ginn Academy (Ginn's charter school) or the football field and I just kind of talk to guys about what's important. Four years in college gives anybody a different perspective. I tell my story, too. When I was a junior in high school, I wasn't a player anybody was going to recruit to play football.
"Football didn't save my life. It opened doors for me. There are guys that probably did get saved by football and by Coach Ginn giving them a kick in the right direction."
Freeman is working on becoming the first member of his family to get his college degree. Whether or not Freeman is down to his last few weeks playing football remains to be seen, but he's prepared either way.
An organizational communication major who's clearly one hell of a salesman, Freeman said he sees himself in five years "hopefully working for some business, some franchise, managing people. In the medical field, or sales. I want to communicate with people. I always thought about getting into coaching, too.
"I have the passion for the game. I know not everybody is fortunate enough to play on the next level but I've been fortunate to have enough experiences through football that yeah, I could see myself sticking around the game somehow."
Freeman said the thought that this might be his last season playing football is "bittersweet. It can be sad if you let yourself think about it. It can be exciting, too, if you really look at playing a game from the time you're six years old and you're still getting to play that game as a grown person 15 years later? That's exciting.
"I'm excited for the next chapter. In a perfect world in my perfect mind, football would be the only thing on earth. Maybe I'm fortunate to say I know it's not. I've been able to see there are other places to go."